Thanks to RunnerSpace.com for the 2008 NXN and 2009 NON videos from which these clips were edited.
He didn't know he could kick like that, Reed Connor says now, looking at the 14-year-old video of him winning the 2008 NXN Finals at Portland Meadows. The Woodlands HS (TX) and U. of Wisconsin alum hadn't seen the clip and thought about that race and his senior year of HS for many years, and the memories were flooding back.
"Being a guy from Texas and The Woodlands, you usually just went out to the front and then just kind of die off at the end, that was the only strategy, at least back when I was running," he remembers.
But Connor couldn't make it to the front of this talented pack, forged during the first year of regional qualifying for the event. He kind of got stuck in a spot behind around 1k, then -- having been reared on flat courses -- kept falling back on the "whoop-dee-dos" at Portland Meadows. "I remember being uncomfortable... but I think that might have been to my advantage, not being in the lead the whole time."
Coming off the final rise, with less than 400m to go, he found himself facing a new situation. "There was only a flat straightaway in front of me. Normally, there would be no one around me at this point, but I said OK, I'll try and kick. All of a sudden I surprised myself and kind of ran away with it. It was a good day for me."
Connor crossed the line in a then-meet and course record 15:13.9, with Jakub Zivec more than four seconds back and standouts like Joash Osoro, Joe Rosa, Craig Lutz, Alex Hatz and Elias Gedyon following. He led The Woodlands to a 4th-place team finish, their best to that point.
Little did Connor know at that point the effect winning that race would have, and that there would still be some hard lessons to learn that senior year before it ended happily with two Nike Outdoor Nationals Championship relay triumphs six months later.
The impact of the NXN victory was tremendous for Connor. "It meant everything, validating my career and everything I had worked for and given up so much. Being part of a program like The Woodlands, that had been the goal for me since my freshman or sophomore year, that I had the potential to win the race. I gave up everything to do that and to see it pan out was very special."
But being part of a "powerhouse program" under legendary coach Danny Green was not always a comfortable place for Connor. "For better or worse, you're living and breathing XC, it becomes the most important thing in your life. Everyone's trying to build on the legacy, not upset the past and build to the future."
Connor felt like he had to live up to past TWH giants like Eric Henry, but also carried the burden of what he felt was a "stigma" that runners from his school and other similar programs, as well as Texas standouts in general, would falter at the biggest meets and not improve beyond high school.
Connor had manifested an identity about himself as a runner and it didn't feel very much in balance with life in general. He thought everything would be great after he achieved a national title, which also resulted in being named National Gatorade Runner of the Year.
But as he realizes now, years later, Connor was still the same person with the same issues to work out. "You think you're going to feel so much different, but there I was at home, taking out the trash like any other normal day."
Now he compares the scenario to a remembered scene from the classic 1993 sports film, Cool Running, about the Jamaican bobsled team, where John Candy's character, Coach Irv Blitzer, tells bobsledder Derice Bannock, "A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you weren't enough without it, you'll never be enough with it."
But back then, Connor's response was to go back at it, harder than ever. "I got a little too excited and just overtrained that next winter and spring and when the big races came up, I was a little flat. I felt like now that I'm a national champion and I can't lose any more races."
The most crushing results were at his Texas 5A state meet, delayed almost a month in 2009 by a freak swine flu outbreak in the state in May. Connor was beaten by Parker Stinson in the 3200, then CJ Brown in the 1600 and he came away as a national XC champ who had never won a state title on the track. "I kind of came back to not knowing how to race," he says.
In the weeks following, as Connor prepared for a final hurrah at Nike Outdoor Nationals, something began to shift for him and he knew he wanted that final weekend to be all about the team, and to relieve himself of individual pressure.
"There was something missing during most of the track season, it wasn't fun any more. You had to show up and if you lost, it was a problem. But what happened at Nike Outdoor is that I just had fun again."
Connor and his teammates had won the 4x1 Mile the year before, but this time they were shooting for the 4x1M/DMR double and know that fellow powerhouse North Central HS (WA) was there. "North Spokane (as they were called) had beaten us at NXN as a team and we were really motivated to beat them. Both of those races were really special to me."
With Drew Butler (a 1:50 800, 4:09 mile standout himself), Tom Sanderson, Ross Moulder and sprinter Travis Southard in the DMR, Connor and The Woodlands put an epic exclamation point on 2009. They won the 4x1M Sunday morning with a meet-record 17:17.21, with Butler anchoring, then the DMR at night as Connor -- again with a surprising kick -- sprinted away from the likes of stars Steve Sulkin (York), Jim Rosa (Plainsboro), Andrew Kimpel (North Spokane) and Tyler Stutzman (Western Albemarle).
Their 9:55.17 clocking was #4 in HS history and led five other squads at 10:00 or better. Connor's pure joy crossing the line in the video is palpable.
"That was me going out there and having fun, getting to share the burden," he remembers. "It was kind of a new chapter. NON, it kind of set everything right and set me up for college, and to have a well-rounded mindset about athletics and who I was, how I wanted to run and enjoy the process of running.
"What I learned from the whole process of winning, realizing that I gave up so much, is that it's more about the journey than the destination ... I wish I knew in high school that not only could I be more than a runner, but that you're doing to be required to be more than a runner at some point. High school sports in general, you define yourself based off of what you're doing at that time. I finally learned that people who can keep everything in persepective, and realize it's just a part of you and not all of you, those people tend to do the best in the long term.
"That's what NXN taught me and NON taught me as well."
Connor then made a decision to head north, far north, to the University of Wisconsin. He was entering another powerhouse program, but was "hedging my bets," that he could be part of a national championship team but not have to carry the burden individually. "I needed to remake who I was after high school and figure out who I am without The Woodlands."
His running career at Wisconsin worked out the way Connor hoped, with team success -- three top-3 finishes in XC at NCAAs, including a team title -- and some individual success on top of that in terms of All-American finishes and some Big Ten conference track victories. The balanced life that he realize he needed came as well, getting a degree from the Wisconsin School of Business.
"I felt like I did it the right way. It was a ton of fun and a lot less stressful," he says. "The icing on cake was winning an NCAA team title."
Still, Connor realizes he could not have had the Wisconsin success had he had accomplished what he did with The Woodlands program, and that he learned valuable lessons from both experiences.
After a short pro career where he achieved some final goals -- making an Olympic Trials (2016), earning a Team USA vest (the BUPA XC meet in Scotland) and running a sub-4 mile (his final meet) -- Connor "stepped into the real world."
"I got my degree in real estate and urban land economics," he says, "and right now I'm with a retail consulting and advisory firm (Dallimore & Co.). Basically I help clients figure out where to put stores and planning strategy with them, with national companies and working internationally as well."
If there's one aspect of running Connor carries with him is that, like a 15+ mile training run, careers are very long compared to the high school or college cycles. He knows he's at the beginning, the "time horizon" is long and is willing to "grind it out and wait for things to pay off. Distance running teaches you that satisfaction is not always immediate."
Meanwhile, in life beyond running, Connor has new challenges of where he needs to balance his life. He's a husband and father of an 8-month old child. "Now that running is not my identity any more, I'm redefining myself as a dad and learning how do I balance family and work, and still carve out some time for myself. I'm happy to be on the other side of running."